Professor Christopher Andrew, formerly official historian of MI5 and author of ‘The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5’, introduces key files from the 30th release of Security Service files to The National Archives in February 2014. The latest release brings the total number of MI5 files at Kew to 5,138. Notable files in this collection include previously unseen material on the former Labour MP, Geoffrey Bing and the actor Michael Redgrave.
Security Service file release February 2014
Podcast: Security Service file release – February 2014
By Prof Christopher Andrew
The latest release of declassified MI5 records brings the total in the KV series at the National Archives to over 5,100 files. As well as documenting thousands of secret intelligence operations, these files have begun to change the way 20th-century British history is being written. To take one recent example: this year’s winner of the Longman’s History Today book prize, Empire of Secrets by Calder Walton, uses KV files to reinterpret the end of the British Empire, the largest in world history. Most previous histories of British decolonisation do not even mention the role of MI5. As the KV series shows, however, MI5 was an imperial as well as a UK security service with intelligence responsibilities for British and Commonwealth territories around the world until the end of the 1960s. Officers who joined MI5 after the Second World War could expect to spend a quarter to a third of their careers on overseas postings.
The most dangerous overseas postings were in Palestine during the final years of the British Mandate which preceded the foundation of the State of Israel. As previous declassified KV files have shown, the main terrorist threat faced by MI5 in the aftermath of WW2 came not from the IRA or Islamist extremists but from the Zionist extremists of the Irgun, led by the future Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, and the Stern Gang, the last terrorist group which actually described itself as terrorist. In 1946 Irgun blew up the HQ of the British administration in Palestine, the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, with heavy loss of life, then destroyed most of the British embassy in Rome. The latest declassified records include five files entitled ‘Jewish Terrorist Activities in the UK’, beginning with KV 3/347. In 1947 a female Stern Gang bomber very nearly blew up the Colonial Office on Whitehall (now part of the FCO) but failed to fuse her bomb correctly.
These files also include details of a parcel bomb campaign in Britain, and give the names of targets. Most of the campaign failed. One of the few fatalities, Rex Farran, a draughtsman in an aircraft factory, was the victim of mistaken identity. The intended target was his brother, Roy Farran, a highly decorated ex-SAS officer, who had led a covert counter-terrorist squad in Palestine. The parcel bomb, hidden inside a volume of Shakespeare, was opened instead by Rex Farran, who was fatally injured. He was killed just as the last British forces were leaving Palestine.
One of those MI5 believed was behind the parcel bomb campaign was Leo Bella, a stateless Jewish company director in north London. Telephone tapping revealed that Bella was obtaining gelignite from a Devon quarry. Bella was also discovered to be in contact with a terrorist group based in Paris. Though the vast majority of British Zionists had no truck with terrorism, MI5 was so alarmed by the post-war terrorist campaigns of the Irgun and the Stern Gang that its policy until the 1970s, discussed in my history of MI5, was ‘to avoid recruiting Jews if possible unless they have very strong qualifications which are necessary for our work.’
Among other newly declassified MI5 records related to British decolonisation is the 9 volume file beginning at KV2/3811 on the barrister and left-wing politician Geoffrey Bing, who in 1957 became Attorney General in Ghana, the first of Britain’s African colonies to win independence. Bing also became a close adviser of the Ghanaian independence leader Kwame Nkrumah, until Nkrumah was overthrown in a coup d’état in 1966.
Bing’s MI5 file is chiefly concerned, however, with his earlier career in Britain and in particular his Communist connections. The diaries of MI5’s post-war Deputy Director General, Guy Liddell, already in the National Archives, show that Prime Minister Clement Attlee was deeply concerned that the Labour MPs elected in the landslide victory of 1945 included a minority of secret communists. Recent research has revealed that Attlee summoned MI5’s Director-General or his deputy to Number Ten more frequently than any other 20th-century prime minister.
In November 1946, Attlee instructed Liddell to tell him personally whenever MI5 had Q ‘positive information that a Member of Parliament was a member of a subversive organisation’. Liddell believed that Attlee felt ‘a responsibility to the House and country to see that such members did not get into positions where they might constitute a danger to the state.’ Among the post-war Labour MPs MI5 believed were secret Communists was Geoffrey Bing. There was, it reported, ‘no question of his communist sympathies, and his present seat in the House of Commons…must be regarded as another example of crypto-communism’.
Bing lost his seat at the 1955 election. The Labour leadership’s fear of secret Communists among its backbenchers, however, continued until the early 1960s. In 1961 Hugh Gaitskell, the Party leader, George Brown, the deputy leader, and Patrick Gordon Walker, one of Gaitskell’s closest associates in the shadow cabinet, agreed to approach MI5 for help in identifying secret Communists on Labour benches. They produced a list; reproduced in my history of MI5, of 16 Labour MPs they thought were really Communists and another nine possibles. MI5 refused to become involved.
One of the surprises in the latest MI5 releases is the file, beginning at KV2/3787, on Arthur Adams, a rare example of a WW2 Soviet spy in the United States who’s passed almost unmentioned in Western histories of Russian espionage. Over the last 20 years top secret material from KGB archives brought to the West by Vasili Mitrokhin, Oleg Gordievsky and Alexander Vassiliev, together with the so-called VENONA decrypts, have provided a long list of agents and Soviet intelligence personnel in the West working for the KGB and its predecessor organisations. We know far less, however, about the agents of Soviet military intelligence, the GRU. It’s because Adams worked for the GRU rather than the KGB that so little has been discovered about him in the West.
Adams’ MI5 file reveals that he was a GRU officer who entered the United States illegally in 1938, disguised as a businessman, to target military secrets. Because Adams returned to Russia in 1945 before he could be questioned by the FBI, US and British intelligence discovered relatively little about his intelligence operations at the time except that he was one of the so-called ‘atom spies’ who penetrated the US Manhattan Project to build the world’s first atomic bomb. In 1999, however, he was posthumously made ‘Hero of the Russian Federation’, the highest Russian decoration, ‘for courage and heroism shown during the performance of special assignments’. Adams was publicly acknowledged as one of Russia’s leading WW2 spies with the nickname ‘Mr Lucky’ and the codename ACHILLES.
More has since been revealed in Russia about Adams’ remarkable personal life. The son of a Swedish father and a Russian Jewish mother, he had spent some of his early career in Canada and the United States. Remarkably, he served in the US Army in WW1. After WW2 he adopted the child of an English Communist. `When Kim Philby defected to Moscow in 1963, he and Adams became firm friends. Ironically, Adams’s MI5 file contains a note on him written by Philby in 1946, while Philby was still a rising star in MI6.
Svetlana Lokhova, who is researching GRU operations in the United States before and during WW2 in Russian as well as Western archives, will be available to give interviews about Adams. Contact details available from The National Archives.
The new MI5 releases also include files beginning at KV2/3791, on two Soviet agents in the United States who are far better known than Adams: Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss. Chambers was a former Soviet espionage courier who defected and identified Hiss, a high-flying young American diplomat who ac companied President Roosevelt to the Yalta conference of the Big Three in 1945. Though at the time Hiss protested his ignorance, there is no longer any real doubt that he was a Soviet spy. In 1950, the MI5 representative in Washington, Geoffrey Patterson, reported to London that his MI6 colleague had received what he called a ‘hair-raising’ approach from the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace for information on what British intelligence knew about Hiss. Following normal practice, Patterson did not give the name of the MI6 representative. But it was in fact Kim Philby. Without of course realising it, the Carnegie Foundation was seeking information on a high-flying American Soviet agent from a high-flying British Soviet agent.
The latest declassified files on WW2 reveal a new dimension of one of the best-known British wartime intelligence successes: the Double-Cross System which used turned German agents to feed disinformation to their unsuspecting German intelligence case officers. This disinformation was crucial, for example, in deceiving the Germans before the D Day landings in June 1944. File KV 2/3800 on Marita Perigoe alias Brahe reveals a different kind of deception. From 1942 onwards an MI5 officer using the alias ‘Jack King’ posed as a secret Gestapo representative in wartime Britain, a bogus position that enabled him to identify British Nazi sympathisers, most of them former members of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists who had found it insufficiently extreme. Some of the pro-Nazis even passed secret information, including details of research into the jet engine, to ‘King’ in the mistaken belief that he would pass it to Germany, rather than MI5. None were prosecuted for fear that their defence counsel might convince a jury that they were the victims of entrapment by the security authorities.
Among other newly declassified files on intelligence in WW2 is a series beginning at KV2/3769 on the strange affair of the French Admiral Emile Muselier. Muselier was the most senior French officer in 1940 to join General de Gaulle, the leader of the Free French in London. At the end of that year Muselier was arrested as a result of evidence which appeared to show that he had passed military secrets to the collaborationist Vichy regime in France. MI5 made clear to Churchill’s intelligence adviser Desmond Morton that Q ‘we could give no guarantee whatever about the source of the information’. Morton, however, believed that it was genuine and showed it to Churchill. It subsequently emerged that the evidence had been forged by the deputy head of de Gaulle’s intelligence service, the Deuxieme Bureau. Muselier was released and received an apology from Churchill himself for his arrest.
Though the evidence had been fabricated by one of his own intelligence officers, de Gaulle blamed the British. The Muselier affair was one of a number of episodes which made de Gaulle incurably suspicious of his allies, despite their major role in the liberation of France. In May 1945, shortly after V E Day, following a dispute over Syria, de Gaulle, as head of the provisional government in Paris, summoned the British ambassador to see him. ‘We are not’, he declared, ‘in a position at present to open hostilities against you, but you have insulted France and betrayed the West. That cannot be forgotten.’ De Gaulle indeed did not forget. Over a decade later he included this bizarre episode in his war memoirs.
Among the files in the latest release most likely to attract media interest are those on several well-known figures in the arts world who were investigated by MI5 because of their Communist connections—Sir Michael Redgrave, J B Priestly, Peter Pears and his partner Benjamin Britten. In none of these cases did the investigation reveal serious security issues, but—particularly in the case of Sir Michael Redgrave—the files reveal some colourful episodes in their careers. At Cambridge University before WW2, Redgrave’s friends had included Guy Burgess, who he did not of course realise was a Soviet spy. After Burgess’s flight to Russia, Redgrave saw him in Moscow when he was playing the role of Hamlet in a touring production by the Royal Shakespeare Company. MI5 intercepted a letter from Burgess to his mother in England telling her that Redgrave’s Hamlet was even better than Olivier’s. What Burgess did not tell his mother was that he was so drunk that he had thrown up in Redgrave’s dressing room.
On this and other MI5 files in the latest release, the National Archives have produced, as usual, a very helpful short guide.